Rapid, climate-driven changes in outlet glaciers on the Pacific coast of East Antarctica

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Observations of ocean-terminating outlet glaciers in Greenland and West Antarctica1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 indicate that their contribution to sea level is accelerating as a result of increased velocity, thinning and retreat7, 8, 9, 10, 11. Thinning has also been reported along the margin of the much larger East Antarctic ice sheet1, but whether glaciers are advancing or retreating there is largely unknown, and there has been no attempt to place such changes in the context of localized mass loss7, 9 or climatic or oceanic forcing. Here we present multidecadal trends in the terminus position of 175 ocean-terminating outlet glaciers along 5,400 kilometres of the margin of the East Antarctic ice sheet, and reveal widespread and synchronous changes. Despite large fluctuations between glaciers—linked to their size—three epochal patterns emerged: 63 per cent of glaciers retreated from 1974 to 1990, 72 per cent advanced from 1990 to 2000, and 58 per cent advanced from 2000 to 2010. These trends were most pronounced along the warmer western South Pacific coast, whereas glaciers along the cooler Ross Sea coast experienced no significant changes. We find that glacier change along the Pacific coast is consistent with a rapid and coherent response to air temperature and sea-ice trends, linked through the dominant mode of atmospheric variability (the Southern Annular Mode). We conclude that parts of the world’s largest ice sheet may be more vulnerable to external forcing than recognized previously.

At a glance


  1. Spatial and temporal variations in EAIS glacier terminus position from all measurements in 1974, 1990, 2000 and 2010.
    Figure 1: Spatial and temporal variations in EAIS glacier terminus position from all measurements in 1974, 1990, 2000 and 2010.

    The rate of terminus position change for each glacier and period is shown by the single-colour circles (see key for sign and magnitude). Pie charts show the percentage of glaciers advancing and retreating in each major drainage basin (DB12–16 (as marked beside pie charts), from, for example, refs 9, 11). Climate stations referred to in this study (Fig. 3) are indicated by stars and the location map (top left) shows surface flow speed over Antarctica30 with fast flow zones (for example >500myr−1) in red to yellow. Grey squares show coverage of individual Landsat scenes (180km×180km).

  2. Changes in glacier terminus position for each epoch for different sets of glaciers.
    Figure 2: Changes in glacier terminus position for each epoch for different sets of glaciers.

    Data for all glacier measurements are shown (a), alongside subsamples of glaciers <15km wide (b), those facing the western South Pacific (c) and those facing the Ross Sea (d) (Fig. 1). Glacier data are shaded by width (see key), and box-and-whisker plots show the median (horizontal line), the 25th and 75th percentiles (box), and the 5th and 95th percentiles (whisker ends) on a cube-root scale (yaxis). Significant differences between the 1974–1990 and 1990–2000 epochs and the 1990–2000 and 2000–2010 epochs are found for all samples of glaciers (ac), apart from those facing the Ross Sea (d) (Supplementary Tables 2 and 3).

  3. Time series of the SAM and summer air temperature data alongside changes in glacier terminus positions.
    Figure 3: Time series of the SAM and summer air temperature data alongside changes in glacier terminus positions.

    The December–May SAM index (a) and mean summer air temperature trends from the three Pacific Stations and one Ross Sea station (b) (Fig. 1) are shown alongside corresponding changes in glacier terminus position (c). Box-and-whisker plots show the median (horizontal line), the 25th and 75th percentiles (box), and the 5th and 95th percentiles (whisker ends) on a cube-root scale (yaxis). Mean summer temperatures are calculated from mean monthly values of December, January and February; that is, data for 1974 are from December 1974, January 1975 and February 1975.


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  1. Department of Geography, Durham University, Science Site, South Road, Durham DH1 3LE, UK

    • B. W. J. Miles,
    • C. R. Stokes,
    • A. Vieli &
    • N. J. Cox
  2. Present address: Department of Geography, University of Zurich, Winterthurerstrasse 190, CH-8057 Zurich, Switzerland.

    • A. Vieli


C.R.S and A.V. had the idea for the research. B.W.J.M. designed and undertook the mapping and data collection, and led the climate analysis. N.J.C. led the statistical analysis and all authors contributed to the analysis and interpretation of the results. C.R.S. wrote the first draft of the paper and all authors contributed to writing the manuscript.

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  1. Supplementary Information (1.2 MB)

    This file contains Supplementary Tables 1-6, Supplementary Figures 1-7, a Supplementary Appendix, which contains tables A1-A2.

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